Loop: A Returnable Packaging Solution or Just a Green Gimmick?

Screenshot_2019-02-27 slide-1 webp (WEBP Image, 1920 × 1080 pixels) - Scaled (83%)A company called Loop is “the milkman reimagined,” or so they claim. The idea is to replace one-time-use containers for products in the store with reusable containers that can be returned to Loop for cleaning and the companies for refilling. They argue that this takes waste out of landfills and plastic out of the ocean. Of course these goals are laudable, but is this the best way to consume our way out of climate change? The answer of our analysis is: it depends on the specifics.

Slate recently covered the company and its upcoming rollout of a trial period in New York and Paris. The article points out the reduction in plastic waste and general better appearance of the more-durable containers in loop products. It rightly lauds the goal of “chang[ing] how we think about the products we currently consume mindlessly.”

Screenshot_2019-02-27 Loop - Launching 2019
Companies participating with Loop.

History has taught us, however, to be wary of large companies who have proven themselves to be more interested in profit over ecological effects. Instead of making money on creating one-time-use bottles, the partnered organizations will make money on cleaning and processing the returned containers and UPS will benefit from increased shipping revenues. Also, the containers come with a refundable deposit, and — depending on the amount — the cost of any unreturned item may be covered by the consumer.

 

Screenshot_2019-02-27 slide-7 webp (WEBP Image, 1920 × 1080 pixels) - Scaled (83%)Indeed, my immediate worry was the carbon footprint of the increased shipping emissions. The company’s founder, Tom Szaky was quoted in Fast Company’s article addressing this concern:

“The major [environmental] cost of a product, whether it’s durable or disposable, is its creation–making it for the first time, extracting materials from the earth, and so on,” Szaky says. “That doesn’t happen in reuse. Instead, what you have is the cost of some shipping as well as the cleaning, and that ends up being significantly better than the cost of remanufacturing.”

This is true, according to the studies cited below, but “some shipping” is an unqualified variable that determines how great of a carbon footprint this idea will entail.

Examining the Loop Carbon Footprint

Screenshot_2019-02-27 slide-2 webp (WEBP Image, 1920 × 1080 pixels)One study from Pilot Projekt Deutschland calculated that 93 percent of the carbon footprint of shampoo is in heating the water for the shower and only 7 percent was used for production and distribution. Another analysis from Eco Hair and Beauty (led by researchers from the University of Southampton), indicates that 58 percent of of the carbon footprint of the shampoo product itself (not counting the water heating) is from the packaging, 29 percent is from distribution, and the remaining 13 percent is the production of and materials for the shampoo itself.

So if we take these numbers and apply them to Loop, we can assume that they are using a higher grade material (i.e., the carbon footprint of creating the bottle is increased) for the bottles, which are said to be used a hundred times. It is unlikely, however, that the carbon footprint of the container even doubles, so there we have a considerable savings: 100 single-use bottles (ca. 110 g CO2 each) versus one high-quality bottle (maybe 220 g CO2) used 100 times, meaning 2.2 g CO2/use.

Loop has two main models: buy the product in the store or start a subscription service; in both cases the containers are returned via UPS. These two options have disparate carbon footprints depending on the habits of the shopper. According to an MIT study, an urban shopper who goes to a store to buy something uses about 2.5 kg CO2 for transportation to and from the store. If someone takes a whole trip to the store just to buy shampoo, in our example, then it is far better to have the subscription delivery by UPS. On the other hand, if shampoo is purchased as part of a weekly shopping trip, then it may represent just a few percent of that transportation footprint (let’s say it is 2 percent of the purchase, meaning a footprint of 250 g CO2). If using the subscription service, the consumer incurs about 500 g CO2 emissions, so twice that of the regular shopping trip but five times less than running to the store just to get shampoo.

Both options would incur a return of the bottles, which would only vary in its carbon footprint depending on the fullness of the return container. A return has a fixed carbon footprint around 500 g CO2, so the more containers returned at once, the better.

So let’s add it up starting with the worst-case scenario:

Single-use bottle (110 g) + special trip to store (2.5 kg) = 2.6 kg CO2

Compare that to the best-case scenario:

Reusable bottle (2 g) + purchase in regular trip to store (250 g) + combined return (50 g) = 302 g CO2

And now let’s look at some comparative, real-world examples:

Single-use bottle (110 g) + purchase in regular trip to store (250 g) = 360 g CO2
Reusable bottle (2 g) + subscription shipping (500 g) + combined returns (50 g) = 552 g CO2
Reusable bottle (2 g) + subscription shipping (500 g) + single return (500 g) = 1 kg CO2

Loop is not a slam dunk, but it could encourage some carbon savings in addition to waste reduction. If one is sure to buy in the store and ship many containers back to Loop, s/he incurs only about 302 g CO2 versus 360 g CO2 when buying a single-use bottle as part of a regular shopping trip. But, if one uses the Loop subscription service, his/her carbon footprint jumps up to 552 g CO2 assuming the return containers are combined. Of course, all of these numbers have assumed variables that could push things one way or the other: rural vs. urban, type of items purchased, etc.

Another Option

If one has the space and financial means, it may be much more efficient to purchase in bulk at specialty stores or regular grocery stores, especially if those items are in biodegradable or recyclable containers and it is part of a regular shopping trip. These purchases can be doled out into smaller, user-friendly containers for individual use. Even better: find a store that has bulk items that can be put into your own containers! These exist but have not caught on, and the convenience factor of Loop might be a benefit for those who would otherwise cause more carbon emissions and waste.

TLDR

Loop offers a way to directly reuse containers to reduce single-use plastics in consumer products. Customers can buy the items in store or have them shipped to them at home. Once the products are used up, the containers are collected in a reusable shipping container and returned to Loop, cleaned, and then refilled. Loop claims this is an ecological savings because the reusable bottle reduces plastic waste. This is objectively true, but it is only a net carbon footprint savings if a consumer buys the products in the store during a regular shopping excursion (i.e., not a special trip for that product). If the products are shipped to the home, it is more carbon efficient to purchase single-use bottles at the store as part of a regular trip. Even better, if possible, buy in bulk on regular shopping trips and refill smaller, more user-friendly containers.


All images from https://loopstore.com/.


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